We all know the scene. It's branded into our cortices like our worst childhood memories: the final moments of the NFC Championship Game—which will now forever be known as the real Super Bowl of the 2014 NFL season—six points separating the two best teams in football, the 49ers driving down the field with the hearts of 70,000 fans thumping in one rhythmic cadence.
Then the pass. The deflection. The heartbreak. The rant.
Getting to their third straight NFC Championship shouldn't be discounted as a failure, but a red-zone collapse on their final drive was a familiar scene in a tumultuous season for the Niners, one that has the thoughtful (and even more of the thoughtless) asking a lot of questions.
First and foremost among them: How much is Colin Kaepernick worth to this franchise?
Let's get one thing out of the way. Had Kaepernick been able to complete the mission and thrown a touchdown instead of a game-ending interception, we wouldn't even be having this discussion. The world would be a different place. No one would remember the terrible interception that killed the offense's prior drive. Or the fumble that ended the drive before that.
Kaepernick essentially lost the game two times, and he was still alive, still moving the offense at a frantic pace, still one or two plays away from the Super Bowl. He was Lazarus with body ink.
Then he failed again.
It was in that moment that even the least savvy of us came to a realization: The 49ers shouldn't pay Colin Kaepernick like a top NFL quarterback.
That's because he's isn't one. Not in any sense (believe me, my fingers hurt from typing this). He's not a regular-season megastar, and he isn't an 11th-hour closer. Yet somehow, a few experts over at the SF Chronicle and a top sports website want the 49ers to pay Kaepernick like he's Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers.
This is a quarterback who helmed the 30th-ranked passing offense in the league.
A quarterback who's never thrown for more than 3,200 yards in a single season.
A quarterback who threw for under 200 yards 10 times this year, including a pitiful 91-yard performance against the Panthers.
Vernon Davis was knocked out of three games—all of which resulted in losses—and Mario Manningham never fully recovered from a season-ending injury he suffered late in 2012. For much of the season, Kaepernick only had one reliable target to throw to.
But he wasn't alone. Tom Brady was missing not one, not two but four of his favorite receivers after Rob Gronkowski went down with a brutal ACL injury. Andrew Luck lost his top target, Reggie Wayne, to the same injury on a non-contact play. Aaron Rodgers had to make the most of what he had when Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson were knocked out for a couple of games.
Despite the injury epidemic, Luck and Brady kept slinging it every week—almost single-handedly carrying their teams into the playoffs—while Rodgers returned from a broken collarbone on the final game of the season and threw the game-winning touchdown against the Bears to win the NFC North.
The 49ers also made an awesome play to crash into the playoffs, and it came when NaVorro Bowman returned an interception 90 yards for a touchdown in the final game at Candlestick Park. It was a familiar theme in San Francisco; close games were either won by Frank Gore or the defense.
Offensively, the Niners never lived up to their full potential. Even when Crabtree returned late in the season, Kaepernick wasn't able to consistently drive the ball for four quarters, and games that should have been blowouts instead ended in nail-biters.
Elite quarterbacks light up the stat sheet. They skewer inferior defenses. And they win. They win throwing four touchdowns by the second quarter or one touchdown in the final 30 seconds.
The biggest nightmare for 49er fans this season was watching Colin Kaepernick throw the football when the game was on the line.
It happened against the best teams in the NFC, and each game felt like a harder kick in the gut. Trailing 10-9 and needing a field goal against the Panthers, Kaepernick was sacked twice before he threw a pass in between two receivers that was caught for an easy interception.
With just over two minutes left against the Saints, he moved the offense seven yards in three plays for a drive that lasted all of 25 seconds. Almost inevitably, the 49ers punted the ball and lost on the final play of the game.
By comparison, Tom Brady led five game-winning drives this season, two of which ended with a completion in the end zone.
While Kaepernick did lead the game-cliching drive against the Packers in the divisional round, he won the game with his legs instead of his arm—something he couldn't do against the Ravens and the Seahawks when the offense needed a touchdown instead of a field goal.
Simply put, he's a long way from becoming the kind of quarterback who gets paid like a superstar. He's more Tony Romo than Joe Montana, and it even took Romo seven years of choking away playoff berths before he got the big contract.
Kaepernick just finished his sophomore season. There's still a lot of room for improvement in his game—an inability to see the entire field, fleeing the pocket from imaginary pressure, being unable to hit his receivers in stride—but the biggest flaw he'll have to work on this offseason is the way he handles criticism.
Anyone can remember the humility Kaepernick displayed after taking over the starting job last season for Alex Smith, even when his tattoos became the focus instead of his ability to throw a football.
Like his northern rival Russell Wilson, he was just happy to be where he was and didn't mind answering whatever questions were thrown at him.
It was a different story this year. Kaepernick appeared awkward and disengaged when talking to the media. He mumbled one-worded answers and often looked like he just wanted to disappear.
He bit back at his detractors more than once as he was struggling to find his stride on the field, "favoriting" several unflattering posts on Twitter and shooting back at Trent Dilfer for labeling him a "remedial" one-read quarterback, as reported by the Associated Press via Fox Sports (h/t Bleacher Report's Rob Goldberg).
Well, I think you should ask him if he knows what my progression is first before he says that...I didn't hear what he had to say, but he's not in the building with us so what he's saying really doesn't affect me at all. I'm worried about what this team thinks and what I'm doing in here with my teammates.
Look, no one likes being called out, and the only advice Trent Dilfer should be giving quarterbacks is how to deflect blame for an interception by giving a receiver a pissed-off look.
But what did Dilfer say that was wrong? Paying too much attention to a single receiver is something Kaepernick did too often, and it ultimately cost the Niners a Super Bowl.
He might have taken the blame for his team's loss in the NFC Championship, but he learned nothing from the final outcome.
As reported by the San Jose Mercury News, when asked on KNBR and ESPN's Mike and Mike Show whether he'd make the same throw again, he responded:
"We've got a one-on-one matchup, and I'll take Crabtree on Sherman every day of the week."
Maybe this was just hubris talking, as Sherman was on Crabtree for most of the game and Kaepernick only threw in his direction twice, but there's no way a one-on-one matchup between Crabtree and Sherman is better than one-on-none with Vernon Davis and Quinton Patton.
Joe Montana could have kept throwing the ball to Jerry Rice in tight coverage, but he was smart enough to look around for John Taylor when the play wasn't there.
It wasn't there for Crabtree three times in the Super Bowl, and it wasn't there in the final game of the season in Seattle.
As painful as this sounds, quarterbacks shouldn't get rewarded for losing conference championships.
Kaepernick is only 26, and there's plenty of time for him to become the kind of quarterback worthy of Scrooge McDuck money. Niners fans and the local media are afraid that he'll be too expensive when that time comes; they believe the window for a sixth title is closing and that Kaepernick should be paid now while he's still reasonably affordable.
I think it’s a balance. You want to be paid fairly for what you feel like you’re doing in comparison to your peers. But at the same time, you have to realize, if we want to get Anquan Boldin back, if we want Donte Whitner to come back, we’re going to have to make moves to get them back. And there has to be room for everyone. And that’s something I’m going to let my agent and the organization try to figure out. But hopefully, it’s a position where we can assemble the best team we need.
The Niners were only a Frank Gore and Vance McDonald dropped pass away from having the best record in the NFC, and if they can return the same team in 2014 (and add even more to it with their 13 draft picks), there'll be a lot to look forward to at Levi Stadium besides the $4,000 ticket price.
With the team stockpiling young talent and possibly creating more cap space by unloading a few of its overpriced veterans, the Niners will be in a good position to give Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree long-term extensions next year.
You know, after they've made their first Pro Bowl or something.
Over at the San Jose Mercury News, Tim Kawakami suggested an $8-9 million salary for Kaepernick (though he recently stated that amount should be higher), and that sounds right.
Salaries are based on results, not speculation.
Forgive me if I sound illogical.
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